E V RAMASAMI
INDIA and POVERTY
THE FIFTH WORLD ATHEIST CONFERENCE
ATHEIST CENTRE VIJAYAWADA 2005
Report on my trip to India, including meetings at Chennai and Hyderabad
It is easy to get to Hyderabad or Chennai from Adelaide. It only takes two hops via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with a one night stop over at either place. I chose Singapore and Hyderabad because The Atheist Centre had their representative at Hyderabad who met me at the airport, took me to a hotel and later put me on the night train to Vijayawada. They were all very good at shepherding me around right down to ensuring that I got the right berth on the train.
I was to spend two days at Hyderabad and had opted to go to the hotel nearest to the venue that would be used in the last leg of the trip. It was cheap but unfortunately it was not a very good hotel. The bed was hard, the bathroom plumbing did not work, and the restaurant which looked attractive only supplied curried dishes. I began to realise that to an Indian a bathroom need only consist of a few buckets including a small one with handle for mixing hot and cold water. Hotels did have western style toilets, other places simply had a hole in the floor and I soon learnt to carry some toilet paper with me.
The following morning I went out to get some money, a toothbrush which I had forgot to pack, some picture cards to send to my relatives. The first thing that struck me was the traffic on the roads. The average Australian would not believe it. There are great numbers of motor bikes, almost as many 3 wheeler taxis, several small cars and a few big busses all rushing along vying for position and using their horn either to warn the vehicle next to him not to encroach on his space or to get the vehicle in front to move on. Some cars even had a bumper sticker "please use horn" The main problem was crossing the road. I soon found that the best way was to sidle up to an Indian who was intending to cross the road and when he moved, I moved!
Just before Xmas Babu Gogineni had emailed me inviting me to a secularist conference and asked me to give a report on Australia, this I did but it left me insufficient time to write a screed to present to the main conference. However I did have two recent emails, one giving the latest information about an oil shortage to take place in 2007 and the other about the dangers of methane gas if the northern arctic gets too warm. All pretty scary stuff. So I searched for, and eventually found an internet establishment where I madly typed away for about 3 and a bit hours producing a 3 page paper which was printed out.
During this time I noted many beggars and that the condition of the buildings were very poor and dilapidated. Many shop fronts were ramshackle, some were hovels. In a few places there was a wall on the frontage and I saw men go and piss up against the wall. The same day there was an item in the newspaper exhorting Sanitation Officers to carry out the law. But I am told that this practise is to be found all over India.
Another item in the newspaper reported the suicide of a 24 year old woman because she was being pressured by her husband over the dowry.
The trip to Vijayawada was by train at night and our hosts had arranged that I was to travel with Frank Zindler, Editor American Atheist, a tall cavernous man, a great raconteur and every inch an Atheist. He was also very knowledgeable about languages when he addressed the conference he first spoke in Hindi but got little response. Then he spoke in Telugu, the local language and was immediately applauded.
In Vijayawada we were driven to the Atheist Centre through a very busy city, you turn in to a short lane to the entrance and you find yourself in a quiet oases with some thatched roofs suggesting you have been transported to the country.
The Atheist Centre is the home of the Goras' and was founded by Gora and Saraswathi Gora in 1940 and moved to its present position in 1947. Gora died in 1975. It is a social change organisation now led by Saraswathi and a dedicated team of people engaged in the promotion of Atheism as a way of Life. Saraswathi is now 93 and there are 5 generations of Goras.
PROGRAMS OF THE ATHEIST CENTRE
From the beginning the centre has covered a wide field of activity. They have given priority to fighting untouchability and caste distinctions, by promoting intercaste and castless marriages and social mixing programmes.
In addition the Centre has created three separate organisations housed in the centre which carry on rural development programs:
Arthik Samata Mandal (Association for Economic Equality) ASM has been working in the sectors of health, habitat, agricultural improvement, livelihood, education, child sponsorship, child rights, disaster relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and mitigation for the last 27 years. They have been involved in disaster relief since the 1977 Cyclone and tidal wave, the 6 major floods and 2 cyclones that have occurred since and these experiences have helped them when tackling the 2004 Tsunami. They have also helped hundreds of polio victims and cataract victims in remote villages.
Vasavya Mahila Mandal is a working women's hostel enabling country women to stay and work in Vijayawada, it is a step towards women empowerment. The Short Stay Home is for women with social problems such as battered women, victims of torture etc., who come for counselling and guidance. They are often able to effect reconciliation with their families. VMM also undertakes HIV AIDS programs and Criminal reformation. Vocational skills are taught so they can resume their lives without using criminal methods. Children are taught team dancing on secular themes, humanism and scientific social outlook.
SAMSKAR is working in more than 100 villages among the criminal tribes known as denotified tribes and has also taken up the program for the eradication of the Jogini system. (A heinous practice thrust on poor untouchable women)
The 5th World Atheist Conference
During the break I met Dr K Veeramani, leader of Dravidar Kazhagam ie the Periyar Centre at Chennai where I had been told that I was to attend a followup conference. I was handed a nicely printed invitation and discovered that I was the guest speaker at the Rationalist Forum! Fortunately I was now satisfied that I had sufficient material.
On Saturday morning our speakers took up the theme that Human Rights are the moral basis of Atheism, that democracy works with Human Rights and that democracy guarantees the rights of the minority.
The conference proceeded with many speakers telling us of their experiences, what they have done and what they intend to do. We saw demonstrations by magicians duplicating the frauds practised by Godmen. There was an interesting talk by Jim Herrick (Literary Editor, New Humanist) concerning Art and Humanism.
It is not possible to give a clear account of what was said at this conference, it was difficult to understand because the 36 large fans in the ceiling resulted in a high noise level. (Jim Herrick said there had been research showing the higher the noise level the more likely it was for the brain to switch off. He thought the noise levels were considerably higher than venues in Europe.) In addition English as spoken by an Indian can be as difficult to understand as that of a Cornishman by a Londoner, and Indians also have problems with an Indian from a different State. Fortunately many speakers sent round copies of what they intended to say. I shall go over these and issue summaries.
At this time I interviewed two people on minidisc. Frank Zindler whom I referred to earlier and a lady who had been working in the reception area and turned out to be a headmistress of a school (260 pupils). She spent much of her time educating the mothers realising that this would be passed on to the family. I asked her what was India's greatest problem. She replied "illiteracy". The full importance of this did not sink in until I had seen the contradictions of India, the great University at Chennai, the large girls college there, and heard Roy Brown (President, IHEU) at the Secularist Conference say that there was more illiteracy in India than in Bangladesh. I then realised that illiteracy should be classed as Poverty of the Mind and was as important as physical poverty.
So the Conference drew to its close on the Sunday afternoon, all speakers were called to the dais and presented with a plaque and stole. At all times our hosts were very strong on ceremony, from their everyday greeting to a presentation was done so you felt honoured. The Conference declaration was issued. Photographs taken.
While my talks at Vijayawada and Chennai were a warning against industrialists and financiers who were rushing us up against a globalised wall of unsustainability, the main thrust of the conference was the battle against religion, the many Godmen who use magic and deception to extract money from illiterates and the Hindi religion (80%) which treats women so badly even today when some reforms have been attempted.
The next day Demos Gora showed me her beautiful set of photos showing her in dance poses in a very elaborate dress against a background of a green country.
I was then taken on a tour of the Periyar Centre. Actually "Periyar" means "the Great Man. His real name is E.V. Ramasamy and while there are many Periyar's if you just say "Periyar" you refer to E.V. Ramasamy. He lived from 1879 to 1973 and was a great reformer and fighter for the Justice Party and against the caste system. He introduced a new wedding system. He fought against the compulsory imposition of the Hindi language. He fought for women's rights, being very concerned with the sad condition of widows in Hindu society. He was imprisoned on several occasions and in answer to criticism of his words and actions he said that social values and social assault on humanity had gone down to such a level that it was necessary to come down heavily with bitter truth just to awaken the illiterate, superstitious population. He supported Ghandi but had arguments with him. After his death in 1978 Dr K Veeramani continued as secretary and established numerous institutions as a permanent memorial to Periyar.
I was shown the large and beautifully kept memorial, a large theatre building, a book shop, the printery where they printed the only humanist daily paper (in Tamil) in the world. I went over the Periyar museum
MY TALK TO THE RATIONALIST FORUM
I started my talk with the new evidence that oil supply is likely to be restricted by 2007 as there are insufficient mega wells coming on stream in that year, I continued with the question of methane being released by melting arctic ice if global warming exceeds 10 degrees. Since methane is a very strong greenhouse gas this could result in a temperature spike completely upsetting normal agriculture which might not recover for 100,000 years.
I then went on to discuss the nature of poverty. (From my article in the souvenir) Rejecting the usual reasons I said it was due to the way we use money. The most expensive item on our budget is a house. Most need a loan but the cost of the loan may add up to 3,4 or 5 times the value of the house, renting is no better. Businesses also borrow money on which you are paying their interest, and you could be up for higher charges on your credit card. All this represented a great river of money flowing from the poor (those who need a loan) too the rich (those who make loans) This was the real cause of poverty.
The following day a retired Professor took me on a trip to see his old University and Library and to a much newer Girls College run by his female relative. We also inspected the Chennai beach which had been turned from white to brown by the Tsunami.
THE LAST DAY
At the airport I am surprised by an official who puts me through the ticketing system at top speed, fetches me a wheel chair and insists that I be pushed right up to the aircraft door and on arrival at Singapore I get the same treatment up to the stop-over desk which is a long distance and is very welcome - but that is the only time it happened.
So back home in Australia I listen to President Bush speaking about freedom and democracy. What use is freedom to an illiterate Muslim woman doomed to have 10 babies? Is it not Bush who's religious right policies prevents knowledge of family planning being spread to the extent that it should?
The fact is that we have to cool it, literally, the whole earth I mean. We have to live frugally, we must ration the use of oil and coal, we should follow the example of the Goras who live simply, in a semi communal state and we must demand reform of the economic system to make greed unprofitable, a fairer distribution of capitol, to allow local production for local consumption and give more incentive to develop alternative energy.
Above all we must educate our politicians, Industrialists and financiers as to the real situation that we face, that the word growth means a rapid advance to destruction, that a larger share of resources are needed by the natural world.
The religious right, industrialists and financiers are leading the world to destruction so it should not surprise you that I agree with Periyar when he says:
He who invented the concepts of Soul, Heaven, Hell, Rebirth